I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.


The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).


Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.


However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].


Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.


And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.


Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.


I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.


[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.

Last month, I presented [1] a paper at the Re-Imagining Challenging History conference in Cardiff, Wales. It combined and developed two of the key things I’ve written about a lot on this blog recently: that museums’ silence is never neutral, and that objectivity, as an expression of ‘truth’ (including a ‘material’ truth), does not exist.


The paper became an example of when history overtakes us. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, Brexit had just happened. Suddenly, my suggestions in the paper about the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics [2] were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign. The fact that the overwhelming silence in society on this rhetoric was now pierced by outspoken support for EU citizens and a critique of how the campaign had been conducted, all of a sudden seemed to make my arguments in the paper self-evident. Obviously there had been an issue. Obviously museums, society – anyone – should have done more before now. There hadn’t even been a silent majority coming to the rescue just in time. There had only been silence.


The world has since moved on, the country seems to have come to terms with what has happened, and we’re back to politics that sees people as mere bargaining chips, and a media obsessed with focusing on what Brexit will do for immigration controls and ‘taking our country back’. In a sad way, perhaps, it has become worthwhile again that I did write the paper.


But this time, there is no excuse for museums. Silence is not neutral. If museums are silent, they are supporting the hate, the harassment that is happening now. As key institutions of social and cultural life, museums that are silent are enabling such actions by not opposing them. Opposing them is political, yes. But in remaining silent museums are not apolitical either: they are siding with someone. And it’s not the immigrants.


Of course, museums can choose to side with whoever they want. They choose their own values. They just need to stop thinking that others don’t notice. And when consequently those others choose not to visit, museums need to take ownership of the reasons for this, and stop subtly chastising them as ‘hard-to-reach’. They are not hard to reach. Some of them may just find museums’ socio-political messaging hard to swallow [3].


Part of that messaging, I would argue, is the way in which history and objects are deployed by museums. I’ve blogged about this several times: In this post I argued that the recourse to history is largely irrelevant and has little, if any impact on contemporary debate, while in this post I suggested that the way museums choose object-narratives avoids engaging with current events. None of this does anything for museums’ impact on society, as envisaged by Museums Change Lives, the British Museum Association’s (MA) vision for museums. It most definitely does not advance society, or support social inclusion, as the MA hoped. In fact, in the paper I suggested that with their current approach, museums in Britain have been allowing, if not promoting certain myths about the nation that cannot be reconciled with current realities. I’m not one for ‘busting’ myths just for the sake of it. However, when myths become a potentially dangerous source of complacency, as I would argue they have become in Britain, then I do think museums must mount a challenge if they are serious about being relevant to contemporary society. Not to preach, or to convert, or to persuade. But to make visible what we may otherwise not choose to see. As far as I’m concerned, anything else is quickly and simply becoming not good enough.


You can download the full paper I presented at the conference here: Silence is not neutral and objectivity does not exist.



[1] I presented the paper in absentia via audio recording. Sadly I could no longer attend in person as planned. Shame! It sounded like a great conference that prompted really good conversation, as seen under the conference’s hashtag #challhist.

[2] See for example Nikolaidis, A. 2015. ‘Immigration and the 2015 Election: The Banal, the Racist, and the Unspoken’. In UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Early Reflections from Leading UK Academics., edited by D. Jackson and E. Thorsen, 98. Bournemouth: Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/page-files/UK%20Election%20Analysis%202015%20-%20Jackson%20and%20Thorsen%20v1.pdf. For a comparative study of the years 2006 and 2013, see also Balch, A. and Balabanova, E., 2016. ‘Ethics, Politics and Migration: Public Debates on the Free Movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, 2006 – 2013.’ Politics 36(1), p. 19-35.

[3] In the paper, I juxtaposed museums’ silence on the nastiness of the immigration debate and their enthusiastic support for the commemorations of the First World War. In both narratives, but uncommented by museums, many people will have recognised the same ‘us and them’ binarity. Britain is famously a country where the ‘Great War’ is solemnly commemorated year after year, and any refusal to participate in the accepted mode of reverence and gratitude is generally met with criticism. You can read about one of the  debates about the public wearing of the poppy here, and I would also recommend reading this paper about Britain’s relationship to Remembrance: Basham, V., 2015. ‘Gender, Race Militarism and Remembrance: The Everyday Geopolitics of the Poppy’. Gender, Place and Culture: a journal of feminist geography. Available from: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/17371. [Accessed 11.06.2016].


After last month’s Interpret Europe conference on the topic, I have been pondering what the role of heritage interpretation is for the Future of Europe. This is not a review of the conference [1]; however, I want to share some of the questions and thoughts I’ve had.


What future?

The joke that Prof Dr Mike Robinson of the Ironbridge Institute (UK) made before giving his keynote speech encapsulates the real ‘hot topic’ of the question of heritage intepretation and the future of Europe for me. He joked that here he was, an Englishman, being asked to speak at a conference about the future of Europe. His keynote wasn’t in fact about the future of Europe [2], but in a way I wish it had been. I would have liked to see the question of Brexit being discussed prominently, to explore why people are questioning the idea of Europe, not only in Britain but elsewhere also, and how this criticism compares both to the ideal and the reality of this union of nations. In my view, understanding this has to be the starting point for any involvement of heritage interpretation in creating Europe’s future [3].


What role?

At several points throughout the conference, the ideal of Europe (peace, prosperity, common destiny, shared culture) emerged as an unquestionable truth, and its promotion the natural aim of heritage interpretation for the future of Europe. While unsurprisingly I personally agree with this positive view of Europe, treating it as a truth in a management practice such as interpretation ultimately dismisses the opposing viewpoints shared by too many. For that is what we are doing when we are proposing heritage interpretation as a tool in promoting this, our view of what Europe is. Instead, we need to really engage with why so many are questioning Europe, and represent that fully in interpretation. That is not to say that we cannot also state what side we, as management, come down on; just the opposite. I argue that being transparent and clear about our political views is what we urgently need in interpretation, and professional heritage work in general [4].


Any role?

I attended a short session on the European Heritage Label, and one of the discussions that emerged in the group was whether this was a bottom-up or top-down approach to deciding which sites get the label [5]. This prompted questions about whether this then imposed a certain interpretive focus, which would in turn force these sites into a narrative of a European history and thus identity. I wondered whether this will actually play a role in supporting that identity, or will it rather put people off and give more fuel to the notion that Europe suppresses national diversity? I don’t have an answer and it would be interesting to read some research around that (suggestions?). It may be a natural step of an ever-closer union, right after bringing down the borders and introducing programmes of exchange and collaboration, all of which definitely have helped create a stronger sense of Europe for me. I would be okay with that. However, I also noted that I felt far closer to the Belgians when I by sheer accident found out about the story of Ambiorix than when we were on the First World War battlefields, which clearly are a ‘shared’ place of European history and which are interpreted as such. Ambiorix, you see, is Belgium’s Arminius, although the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren did not mention that, nor do I think I would have much appreciated if they had. Nevertheless, realising how similar some of our stories are really pleased me. It made me feel that we can understand each other, and that I and my folks can learn from the Belgians’ relationship to these histories, too.


Here’s to the future of Europe.




[1] Much of my conference, due to the sessions I picked and conversations I had, didn’t actually touch on this question.

[2] You can see the slides from his keynote here. He talked more about the future of thinking about cultural heritage, which was a good keynote to have at an interpretation conference.

[3] And I do not mean so that we can better persuade people of our view.

[4] I’ve spent much of my time since the conference writing another conference paper on just this topic. This is for the Challenging History conference later in the month.

[5] It seems that the answer to the question depends on one hand on the national nomination process, which can be different in each country that has signed up to it. Not all EU members have. On the other hand, there are the criteria which then are used by the EU panel of experts. That process will, I suppose, always be ‘top down’ to an extent, and for an official initiative such as a label I’m not sure I see an alternative.


Next month, I will represent ICOMOS ICIP at the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants through Culture. In preparation, the organisers have posed three questions [1] for each participant network to respond to. As I collated the response from ICIP’s network, it’s been really interesting to revisit the various initiatives and writings I’ve come across over recent months, and read through what colleagues sent me. I’d like to share some of the thoughts and questions that have come up for me personally during this process [2].


Migrant doesn’t equal migrant

The term really is too often used to cover what are vastly different motivations for and experiences of migration. These groups cannot be lumped together. That they all ‘live away from their country of origin’ no more predicts their needs and desires than does having red hair for British people. It may seem a convenient segmentation, but it neither reflects reality, nor does it provide a helpful framework for thinking about migration and its demands on our professional heritage practices.


Living in an ‘Age of Migration’

The MeLa project spoke of an ‘age of migration’, and its final report notes that although migrations have always taken place, ‘due to improved possibilities for physical and virtual movement today they have grown in quantity, rapidity and complexity’ (p. 8). Migration today is constant, fluid and global, and it seems to me that this in particular necessitates a more differentiated understanding of, and thus professional response to, the specific type of migration we want to work with, if indeed we continue with this targeted practice at all [3]. But there are other questions too that arise from the idea of an age of migration:


Heritage Assimilation?

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in their publication Towards the Integration of Refugees in Europe (2005) notes that historically, states used a ‘strategy of assimilation’ regards third country nationals (p. 14). Through assimilation, ‘refugees’ values and norms would be substituted with values and beliefs of the host society’ (ibid). I wonder if many of our current professional heritage practices regards people from third countries are rooted in concepts of assimilation. In other words, as we offer guided tours for refugees and programmes where they can learn more about ‘our’, the ‘host’ country’s history and heritage, are we in danger of creating structures that ask newcomers to adopt this heritage and make it their own? [4] Is this also at the core of the following:


Fighting for resources

I read the suggestion in an article [5] that migrated groups are ‘in competition’ for representation in museums. Heritage here emerges as distinct parcels belonging to distinct groups, that my heritage isn’t your heritage, and if my heritage is represented that means yours isn’t. And of course to some extent that is how heritage works; scores of writers have noted the exclusive nature of heritage [6]. But could this also be more than a question of representation? Could this be the result of an ultimately assimilatory understanding of heritage, and one that becomes increasingly problematic in an age of migration: the idea that the ‘host’ heritage should and will stay the same, with newcomers expected to either buy into it or create their own, separate heritage in this new place? How would this all change if we adopted a different view of heritage altogether?


Heritage Integration?

The ECRE writes that integration (as opposed to assimiliation) is a ‘dynamic two-way process’ (see above, p. 14) that requires of both sides action and adjustment. What could integration mean then for heritage, and consequently professional heritage management? Would this be a kind of give and take between ‘old’ residents and ‘new’ residents, whereby they create a new, shared heritage, in which some common elements remain, and others change? While professional practices may necessarily have to start off with showing what heritage in the host society is like at the moment of arrival, do we then need practices that adapt and change as new heritage is created once refugees become settled?


The Integration of Refugees and Migrants through Cultural Heritage (Management) Practices

I suppose what I’m grappling with in all of the above – and I am not suggesting I have any answers here – is my deep dissatisfaction with current professional practices that compartmentalise and historicise migration and create a ‘migrant’ heritage that, while possibly represented, forever remains separate. If we are indeed in an age of migration (and I think we are) then this is not a sustainable path forward. Telling a balanced story, or ‘polyvocality’, as MeLa calls it (p. 25), is still in my view the best approach in interpretation to show all aspects of heritage, but this is not about inclusion, or more specifically integration, this is primarily about representation. To arrive at integration, we might need more – but that’s the part I’m not sure about yet. Thoughts welcome.




  • Question One: Which 5 recent initiatives in Europe (or elsewhere) best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What have been the key success factors in these initiatives?
  • Question Two: What are the best ways to organize cultural activities to promote the inclusion of refugees and migrants – immediately on arrival (first six months), and in the longer term (after six months – the normal time limit for asylum procedures in the EU)?
  • Question Three: What are the 5 strongest arguments which can be made by civil society, on why and how to use culture to promote the integration of migrants and refugees? How should these arguments be framed, to justify investment in culture?

[2] This is very much one of these posts where I’m putting my thoughts out there to make sense of them. I’m fairly new to reading migration studies and migration/museum research, so bear with me and do point me to stuff you think I should consider.

[3] Although I would again argue against any segmentation on the basis of one attribute. Incidentally, so does MeLa’s report (p. 50).

[3] I want to quickly, and emphatically, add that I am not in the least devaluing those activities. Refugees in particular appear to find these very offers, of learning about the existing history and heritage in their new home, very helpful and important. It seems to be a way of familiarising themselves with this new place, to make sense of it, before they can even enter the phase where they can add their own heritages. I’m also intrigued by mapping projects, and tours that are guided by refugees, all of which actually may go a long way toward creating a new, integrated heritage, through connection to place.

[4] Small, S., 2011. ‘Slavery, Colonialism and Museums Representations in Great Britain: Old and New Circuits of Migration.’ In: Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 9(4), pp. 117-128, p. 125

[5] See for example Waterton, E. 2010. Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 9.

I have tried for a week now to pen a dispassionate response to the British Museums Association’s (MA) article in this month’s Museums Journal relating to Britain’s EU Referendum [1]. I can’t. However, I still think that my experiences and views, and my bitterness, can offer something of value not only to British colleagues, but hopefully to others also.


This is a deeply personal and subjective post. I make no apology for it.


Just take a stand already

I don’t actually think the MA needs to take a stand for or against remaining in the EU. But there is a stand to take for an organisation that is fundamentally about culture and society (all of society!) and an organisation too, which, according to its own account, seeks to make a positive social impact for everyone. We’re getting the economic argument everywhere in the current debate, and that is already immensely frustrating to someone like me [2]. I would have liked to see the MA move beyond the question of the financial impact of leaving the EU on museums, and pick up on those things most others leave out. Listening to museums discourse at any other time, we’re led to believe that museums work with groups outside the mainstream, that they are about social cohesion, inclusion, and justice, about providing space for safe debates and engagement with views other than our own. So at the very least I would have liked to see the MA comment on where they stand for example on the one-sided way EU Citizens are being portrayed as mostly a drain on the UK’s social services.


This is not being neutral

I cannot help but feel that most likely, despite declaring that ‘museums are not neutral’, this lack of a clear stand by the MA is meant to be just that: neutral. They probably don’t want to be seen as trying to influence members, and alienate those who might disagree. But this complete silence on those very issues (above) that normally museums claim as their natural territory for making an impact is anything but neutral. This assessment by an associate professor at the London School of Economics expresses eloquently what it feels like to live in Britain at the moment as an EU Citizen, and the questions quite a few of us are asking ourselves right now about this country. By not highlighting and responding to these far-reaching social and political concerns that are raised here, the MA and museums are not only leaving unoccupied a space that in my opinion they should claim, they also suggest that they’re okay with the current state of affairs.


How about something like this?

I’ll make a quick excursion to Germany. Only this week, cultural institutions including museums (!) in Saxony-Anhalt, a state that has been particularly plagued by Pegida and recent gains in the state assembly by the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland party, came together to take a stand. They had the perception that ‘in recent months the political climate in the state has changed and public discussions have taken on an ever sharper tone. During the course of this, callous statements have found their way into these social debates that are unacceptable.’ [3] And so they are displaying banners, visible for everyone, declaring their belief in Article 1 of the German constitution: ‘Human dignity is inviolable.’ To this institutions add their own values that are most important to them, for example, ‘the right to asylum’. This is not mainstream. The refugees for example are not the majority in Saxony-Anhalt. But these institutions stand by them, and they make it known, which is likely to annoy quite a few people in the state. The institutions are happy to have a discussion with them. But they state clearly what values they want to see upheld, and which ones they will defend.


Context, you say?

In the two short paragraphs that end the MA article that set off this outburst, the MA’s policy officer is quoted as saying that the EU referendum provides an opportunity for museums to ‘give the debate a historical and social context’. Now, in the same issue of the journal, there is an interesting exchange on dealing with the legacy of empire [4]. Here, a – to me – very peculiar attitude emerges toward what museums can explore and how [5]. I may be unfair in thinking that this type of approach might be used also by others (the majority) to give context to the EU referendum. And if you come across an exhibition that does more than give a history of the EU and Britain’s relationship with it, go beyond some form of ‘fact-check’ of the arguments put forth by other players, and add more challenge to the mainstream view than an ‘I am an Immigrant’[6] style of display about the contribution of EU citizens to Britain, then do let me know. If, however, this type of exhibition is all that we’re getting, then I do not find this a context worth having. It’s not inclusive, it’s not representative, and it’s not contributing to the critical development of society. This is a mainstream narrative with the most tame of interventions (that would be the ‘I am an Immigrant’ element).


Let’s assume there is a future for us

But let’s imagine Britain stays in the EU, and EU Citizens can continue to live here without having to go through Britain’s famously hostile immigration system. What then? Are we just going to pretend that none of this ever happened? Is the MA suddenly going to become ‘my’ organisation again even though it too was content to ignore how EU Citizens in Britain were treated and represented? Or has instead a veil been irreversibly ripped off Britain’s face and my illusion of belonging? All I know is that silence, ‘neutrality’ and exhibitions like those I described above are not going to heal the wounds [7].




[1] The article focuses on funding: Steel, P., 2016. ‘What would leaving the EU mean for the cultural sector?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 7. The editorial of the journal includes a reference to the referendum around the broad questions of identity, but mostly in terms of what Britain’s identity is. The existence of non-Brits in this country is not reflected.

[2] I’m first and foremost a European (and YES, that is in an ‘EU’ sense, not a loosely and near-meaninglessly defined historical Europe). For me, Europe is about social integration, shared histories, shared culture, and most importantly, a shared present experience. I realised that most forcefully when I lived in the United States. I am reminded of it every time I go across to what Britons call ‘Europe’: the Belgians, the Poles, the French, these are my people. I know that Brits don’t see the EU like that. But I do.

[3] ‘…in den vergangenen Monaten [hat sich] das politische Klima im Land verändert […] und die öffentlichen Auseinandersetzungen [haben] an Schärfe zugenommen […]. Dabei haben sich auch menschenverachtende Töne in die gesellschaftlichen Debatten gemischt, die nicht hinnehmbar sind.’ (my translation)

[4] Mohammad, A. and Smith, A., 2016. ‘The conversation: Are museums doing enough to portray the legacy of British empire?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 17.

[5] An art curator writes that ‘museums are fundamentally concerned with the details of history, as represented by specific objects’, and therefore, ‘we are perhaps placing too heavy a burden of responsibility on these institutions expecting them to address such a contentious subject [like empire] through individual artworks’. The curator continues that, ‘The challenge is how to address empire in a way that engages with, rather than alienates, the public. There is no point in mounting worthy projects in empty rooms (my emphasis).’

[6] I do in no way mean to belittle this campaign – when it first came around, I was really rather grateful that someone wanted to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric. I do have a slight issue with the fact though that it focuses on immigrants, and suggests that we have to prove we’re ‘good’ immigrants. I firmly believe in integration, but I also believe in host societies questioning their own values and actions. And the fact that this campaign had to be launched in the first place says something.

[7] And again, I apologise to all my so-called ‘BAME’ colleagues, which, let’s be honest here, mostly means ‘non-whites’/’non-European’. I know you’ve known this for a long time. I’m actually thankful, in a really angry sort of way, for this experience I’m having. It’s making me a better museum professional, and a better person, as long as I will remember what this feels like. And I’m determined never to forget.

There is a tradition within interpretation that identifies having ‘love’ [1] or ‘passion’ [2] for heritage and/or for people as a desirable, if not necessary quality in interpreters. This goes beyond just a lively, engaging delivery. It is to genuinely ‘love the thing you interpret’, as well as the people who visit it [3]. For Tilden, ‘love’ was even the ‘single principle’ [4], which comes before all others.


Now, here’s my first confession: I don’t generally ‘love’ people. I ‘need’ people as an interpreter, because interpreting anything to the wind is rather pointless. But that merely makes people a necessary element of my job. And in doing my job well, I enjoy the feeling of having supported people in their personal heritage endeavour. Does that mean that I love them, with ‘understanding’ and ‘affection’ for the reasons for their ‘ignorance’ [5]? No. I simply consider it professional as an interpreter to be helpful and respectful toward people, and to not show them when I don’t like them (and yes, that happens too).


And here’s another confession: of all the places I’ve interpreted in my career to date, I can honestly say that I only ever ‘loved’ one. ‘Love’ here is my understanding of the term: as feeling deeply connected to and inspired by a place and the heritage associated with it. By ‘love’ I don’t mean Tilden’s premise that ‘love’ is the prerequisite of all possible ‘knowing’ [6] and that love is ‘reverence’ [7] – I would actually question both ideas.


Traditionalists may well suggest that I must have been a poor interpreter at all the sites I didn’t ‘love’ [8]. And it is true that for some of them, I did not care at all on a personal level. In fact, with a few I even wondered how on earth they could be heritage for anybody.


But. Interpretation is my job. I have respect for other people’s heritage. I care about doing my job well so that they, and others, can continue engaging with heritage, and take inspiration from it and each other to create and re-create heritage (or to discard it, if they so wish). If I’m passionate about anything then it’s that.


And to be honest, I actually think there’s an argument for not interpreting the heritage you’re passionate about. For example, I’ve never interpreted my own personal heritage, and I wouldn’t want to – because I know that my passion for it means it’s personal. That’s bound to either influence or hinder another person’s engagement with that heritage. They may feel overwhelmed by my obvious connection with or ‘ownership’ of that heritage, or they may sense that some lines of enquiry are less welcome than others [9].


For me, interpretation is definitely not a ‘way of life’ [10]. It’s a job that is governed by professional ways of working, and not by what I consider personal emotions like love and passion.




[1] Tilden, F. 1957/1977. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 94

[2] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002. Interpretation for the 21st century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, p. 155. See also Association for Heritage Interpretation, nd. What is interpretation? Available online: http://www.ahi.org.uk/www/about/what_is_interpretation/ [Accessed: 28.03.2016]

[3] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 90

[4] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 94

[5] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 91

[6] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 92, quoting Thomas Carlyle

[7] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 93

[8] We actually got similarly high levels of satisfaction and engagement at all the sites – independent of whether I loved them or not. For my practice, therefore, ‘love’ apparently is not a determining factor.

[9] There are arguments too for having people of a certain heritage interpret it, yes. I’ve not quite decided yet where I stand on this, and I’m not aware of comparative research on what works best for ‘visitors’ and other communities associated with that heritage (do send some my way if you do!). From personal experience, I prefer the interpreter to not be a member of one of the heritage communities, although I still think the best (personal) interpretation happens when the interpreter is a non-member facilitating or supporting the exchange between members of the heritage communities and others. A recent issue of Legacy on Interpreting Idigenous Cultures had some really good thoughts and insights around this topic.

[10] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002, p. 158

A few days ago I had the chance to visit Titanic Belfast. It was a good opportunity to think about the theatricality in our presentations of heritage, or the production of an experience, especially after my last post and my post of a year ago about re-visiting Stonehenge.


Titanic Belfast was definitely a site where I expected the big production: impressive architecture, great facilities (shop, café, car park), and a full-on, high-spec exhibition. And it was all that. And it was satisfying for that reason, too, although there were definitely a few issues, or would have been, if the visit had been during the busy summer months [1].


I think the reason why a big production feels appropriate here is fundamentally about absence: there is little on-site, or at least not the one thing everyone probably craves to see, and that’s Titanic herself. Mind, there is nevertheless a very strong sense of place. The museum is right beside the slipway where Titanic was built, and the working harbour, including the company that built the ship, still envelops the site. That’s pretty exciting, but it’s made more exciting because of the production. For one, the architecture evokes the bow of the ship, apparently at the same size of the ship itself. Then there is the (very clever) view out onto the slipway from the building just at the right place in the exhibition where it talks about Titanic’s launch, and from a good height too (my colleague and I were wondering how the height compared to the ship’s height if it were in front of you). I can’t see how a stroll through the harbour could have engendered a similar encounter with it or with Titanic, and for that reason I would say that this production works; architecture that truly supports interpretation, visitor experience, and a sense of place.


And the same holds for many of the elements in the exhibition. There is an excellent three-sided video projection that takes you through Titanic; although it gave me motion-sickness, I thought this was a really good way of letting visitors experience the ship, something that most probably want. There are also recreations of cabins and of a part of the deck, all coming after well-designed interpretation telling you about Belfast’s industry and Titanic’s construction, and followed by a really tasteful and evocative presentation of the sinking, using morse code messages sent at the time. There definitely was no sensationalism here.


Although I didn’t think the exhibition made the most of what it could have been, it was staged in such a way that met my expectations for an experience to which I can’t see an alternative: a way to ‘touch’ the story of Titanic. I think in a case like this, where there isn’t substantial tangible connection with a story, a big production can be both justified and immensely helpful as infrastructure. The Titanic story is still huge; people are still fascinated by it and it still plays a role in popular culture. To those interested, Titanic Belfast probably offers a focus for living and breathing the story, to make it part of their own biographies [2]. And despite the big production, the creators of the museum really did manage to avoid being cheesy. I know that some people would still dismiss it as Disneyfication, and the ‘Have your picture taken’ at the start did feel a bit over-the-top [3]. I would be interested in studies that capture both what attracts people in general to the story of Titanic and why people come to this particular attraction, for I think that gives the best indication of whether the production on offer is ultimately appropriate. For me, I thought in this instance the theatricality and slick production worked [4]. It is undoubtedly a manufactured ‘heritage product’, but since Titanic has sunk and people still feel inspired by it, I really can’t bring myself to criticise it for that – not the least because there is a real effort to connect it to more than a sensationalist story, including connecting it with contemporary Belfast. This is part of a wider regeneration project, and from what it looks like, that part has worked too.



[1] It started with not being able to find the car park, which apparently is right underneath the building. That’s convenient and great, but seriously, there was two of us and we couldn’t see the signs for the car park. Talking about pre-visit stress. The layout of the exhibition with separate themed exhibition ‘rooms’ was also such that it created bottle necks even on what was a not very busy day. There were several instances where you couldn’t see the panels, and no-one dared to use the interactives, because there were just too many people clustered around and trying to get a glimpse. There was also a ride, which in my opinion added nothing to the experience, except the need to queue on a busy day. We walked right up, but if I had had to wait the 20 minutes that were indicated along the wall I would have been less than impressed.

[2] Just like visiting the locations where films were made becomes a part of our own biographies, an expression of our own identities in the things that interest us, who we are, what we identify with, and what inspires us.

[3] Although, had I been there with a friend, I would have cheerfully embraced it as fun – who says that history, or heritage, can’t be lighthearted?

[4] I write this especially in light of just having done an assessment of the interpretation of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, where I also had an expectation of a bit more presentation and production than what is there, similar perhaps to Stonehenge. And while I think there are good visitor management and access reasons to think about doing a bit more (if and where possible) at the WHS, I also really came to appreciate the simplicity of the visits. To lose that would be to lose the essence and experience of the site. A different infrastructure will be more important.